Before science and technology could unravel the fabric of reality, people looked towards magic, myth, and faith to discern and engage with the world around them.
Visual images, in particular, were potent sources of magic — spells, prayers, and rituals were expressed through glyphs and illustration, communicating divine meaning in communities where written literacy was exceedingly rare. Folk traditions and pseudoscientific practices, such as astrology and alchemy, were increasingly pushed towards the periphery as humanity veered towards rationalism and the Enlightenment, however, folklore and magic remained fundamental and captivating vestiges of cultural heritage, a fascination that endures to the present day.
Laura Ford, Hung Up, 2018.
The element of the fantastic runs through several works of the artists featured in 21st Century Women. It is, perhaps, particularly resonant within the context of women artists, as mysticism has often been associated with the feminine across many cultures. Ancient Chinese philosophers inscribed the feminine entity of yin with darkness and mystery — diametrically opposed to the masculine yang. In the West, women were persecuted for witchcraft, irrationalism, and hysteria, thus excluded from the mainstream patriarchal domain of reason.
Suzy Murphy, Home, 2017.
Lore and legend, for instance, takes centre-stage in the sculptures by Laura Ford, who creates anthropomorphic creatures resembling characters from childhood fairy tales. They embody Freud’s theory of the Uncanny, at once familiar and nostalgic, yet also arrestingly menacing and nightmarish. The work of Polly Morgan follows a similar vein incorporating taxidermy in her sculpture, harking back to Surrealist objects such as the infamous ‘furry teacup’ by Meret Oppenheim.
Polly Morgan, White Budgie LR (TO BE TITLED), 2018.
For other artists, magic comes from a sense of space and environment. Within the paintings of Suzy Murphy, lone girls hover within dream-like, haunting landscapes, often employing the forest as settings for their ancient associations with mystery and the unconscious. In contrast, Annie Morris’ ‘stacks of joy’ are exuberant, triumphant columns of densely pigmented spheres, drawing a shamanic energy and feminine strength that is raw, yet paradoxically, held in a fragile balance.
Annie Morris, Stack 9, Viridian Green, 2017.
Using various means and mediums, women have come to embrace folklore and fairy tale in their art, each bringing a personal touch in interpreting the wealth of collective memories and traditions passed down through generations. It is, perhaps, a radical act — one of reclaiming female agency over cultural history, blurring the boundaries of ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture.